She sort of just walked in there unannounced, and certainly uninvited. She came all convinced that she was worth something, and aint nobody going to tell her otherwise. So consumed with that ailin’ child of hers, she forgot to follow protocol and have a man go speak for her. She just came right in, with her female pagan self and started begging.
Begging whoever this wondering holy man was in front of her to get busy and get that demon out of her daughter. She didn’t have much more of a plan than that. So she walked in there unannounced, and uninvited. People of Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship and guests among us, allow me to introduce one more guest in our midst this morning: Its not that she has family here, and its not that any of us necessarily asked her to come, and she might not even be all that interested in me getting licensed this morning. Mark calls her the Syro-Phoenician woman. Apparently its not her birth name that’s all that important but it’s the fact that she’s Syro-Phoenician. An outsider, not one of us, not a part of the people of God. But somehow she managed to slip through the doors this morning right into the middle of Mark’s gospel and right into the lectionary reading for this week. And Mark places her at a point in his gospel when things are about to break wide open.
The story is unique in a couple of ways. First of all Mark tells us that Jesus went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. This is outside of Jewish territory, outside of Galilee where Jesus had been doing his ministry; this is far north into the Lebanon. In fact, this is the furthest north that Jesus will travel in the Gospel of Mark, the furthest point away from Jerusalem, the center of the Jewish world. This is, so to speak, the furthest point out, at the edge, the periphery. It’s also unique because it’s the only place in the gospels where Jesus gets verbally out-dualed and concedes the point to the person conversing with him. It is the only time when Jesus tries to take things in one direction, only to come back and say “OK, let’s do it your way.” So many other places in the gospels Jesus seems to be so resolute and steadfast, knowing exactly where things are headed. Here he seems almost out of his element, off his guard, like this unexpected visitor has somehow made him speak something he’s not sure he believes. This is certainly the only place Jesus uses a derogatory term toward a foreigner.
Its not like Jesus was there for ministry or anything. He was just coming off a bitter dispute with the Pharisees and the scribes. They had come all the way from Jerusalem, to scope him out in Galilee. There were certain traditions that had held the people together for centuries that Jesus was saying weren’t all that important. In fact, he was saying they often serve more to exclude than include and don’t have much at all to do with the commandment of God. Tension with these other religious leaders was escalating fairly rapidly. Already in Mark, way back in 3:6 it says that these leaders went out and conspired against Jesus to destroy him. Now, after this most recent confrontation, Jesus no doubt felt the threats closing in on him. So, as was just read, he went away from Galilee. 7:24 “From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.” The furthest point out, a place of escape from the threats, a time for retreat. He didn’t want anyone to know he was there.
This point in Jesus’ life reminds me of a certain point in the life of Martin Luther King Jr. toward the is the beginning of his ministry in Montgomery, Alabama. People have referred to this as King’s “kitchen experience” of Martin Luther King Jr. toward the King was a rising leader in the black struggle for equality in the city, but soon started to have false accusations written about him in the newspapers. City officials united against King and had him spend some time in jail for a minor traffic violation. He began receiving threatening phone calls to his house, telling him to leave town or face the consequences. King said ““I almost broke down under the continual battering.” Around midnight one night, King received a particularly threatening phone call. He wasn’t able to sleep so he went out to his kitchen and prayed for some kind of strength from God. As he later described it, he then heard an inner voice saying “Martin, stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth.” This transcendent voice opened up a reservoir of strength for his continued ministry and was one of the factors leading him to embrace nonviolence.
Jesus’ kitchen of retreat was a house far away from those threatening him, and the inner voice came in the form of a foreign woman who wouldn’t take no for an answer. Jesus’ initial response to her was “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” This fits inside the understanding of Jesus’ people as the children of God and the outsiders as dogs, as they were often called at the time. Matthew’s version of this story includes a line that helps clarify Jesus’ mindset. There he says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Jesus is making a statement about the scope of his ministry and, put simply, right now it doesn’t include this woman. But the transcendent voice finds its way into the story. And the great surprise is whose mouth it is coming out of. Jesus experiences the Word, so often spoken out of his own mouth, now being spoken to him, by a foreign woman.
You’d think that Mark’s is trying to leave everyone offended who reads this. Take your pick. You can get offended that Jesus called her a dog or you can get offended that the Word of God is coming out of the mouth of a pagan woman.
But the great thing here, and the point that we need to grasp, is that neither the woman nor Jesus end up being offended at each other. The woman takes the jab and turns it right around with her own spin. And Jesus recognizes something true that has been spoken. And he says “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.” A better translation here would be “Because of that Word, you may go.”
There is a line from a poem by the medieval poet Rumi that I believe captures what’s going on here. This is the line: “Jesus slips into a house to escape enemies,
and opens a door to the other world.” (Rumi, unfold your own myth)
The other world that gets opened here is what breaks Mark’s gospel wide open, and what should break us wide open. It is the ultimate barrier of humanity that is being broken down. The Jew and the Gentile are in the same room, both refuse to be offended by the other, and the healing power of God flows between them.
So right after this, Jesus stays in Gentile territory and heals a deaf man and right after that there is a feeding of masses of people, and its not the one we might think it is. The feeding of the 5000 happens several chapters before in Mark and happens with a Jewish crowd. Now at the beginning of chapter 8 there is another feeding, this time 4000, paralleling the earlier story, this time with a Gentile crowd. You may have thought we were done with the whole bread thing after last week, but it looks like we can’t escape it. Bread is a constant sign throughout the gospels of full inclusion at God’s table. And it looks like its offered to everyone through this reconciled humanity.
This is a day packed full of meaning for our family and for Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship. We dedicate our baby, we join this fellowship, and I become licensed and installed as your new pastor. I’ve felt some sense of call on my life to be a pastor since I was in my last years of high school, so this day is significant for me. For CMF, you have been in a period of transition for a couple years now, and this marks the beginning of a new chapter in your life. One of the best ways I can serve you as your pastor is to keep the story of this congregation rooted in the story of the gospel, and what better way to start off than to have a little visitation from the Syro-Phoenician woman.
I don’t think she’s going to let us off easy, to tell you the truth. I don’t think she’s going to let us be content with our current understandings of the scope of God’s mission through us. I think she’s going to challenge me and challenge all of us. Most likely she’s going to ask us to be a part of this same kind of breaking open of the work of God that Mark describes. Unannounced and uninvited, but certainly a needed messenger for us.
Just how far does love spread? Just how wide open is the heart of Jesus to all who enter? Just how far does healing extend? It would seem from the story that the answer is – the furthest most point. We are being led into the other world where there is no division between Jew and Gentile, male and female, black and white, rich and poor…the list goes on. My prayer this congregation and for myself is that we allow ourselves to continue in the gospel story, and follow Jesus and our sister the Syro-Phoenician woman as they lead us through the door into the other world.